The off-season is a long and tiresome trudge, so how can we best get through it? By looking ahead to next year, of course. So, in the spirit of forward thinking, we present a team-by-team look at Iowa's 2010 football opponents (with looks at Illinois and Purdue thrown in for good measure so our Big Televen brethren don't feel ignored). Next up: the Iowa State Cyclones. Do they still suck? Do they ever!
In case you missed it... PART ONE
Iowa State iz gud at takling.
IOWA STATE CYCLONES (@ Iowa City, September 11, 2010)
OK, what should we expect when ISU doesn't have the ball? Until last year's game, Iowa State's defense had displayed a tendency to overachieve like crazy against Iowa, relative to the rest of their results over the course of the year. As with so many things in this series, on-paper analysis can wind up meaning very little; once the whistle blows and the emotion of the game takes over, they may turn into an impenetrable wall, no matter what their stats suggest. But we press on anyway.
The defensive front returns three players with starting experience, although only two of them saw much action a year ago. Rashawn Parker (winner of the Tony Moeaki Memorial "Jesus, He's Still There?!" award for having been around since 2006) returns to action after suffering an ACL injury in the fourth game of the year last season; he didn't participate in the spring game but is expected to be ready to play in the fall. Still, no one ever seems to come out of the gate roaring after an ACL injury, so his usefulness may be limited early on in the season. His absence paved the way for Patrick Neal to make multiple starts at defensive end last year and he responded by finishing with 27 tackles and 1 sack -- not exactly eyebrow-raising figures. He's two years removed from playing at tight end and, at 6'0", 227 lbs., he seems a bit undersized. ISU has a few other players at DE who've seen some playing time (Cleyon Laing and Roosevelt Maggitt), but that's primarily been during blowouts or on special teams. The interior of the defensive line isn't much better; after losing four-year starter Nate Frere at defensive tackle, they're turning to little-used senior Austin Alburtis (26 tackles, 3.5 TFL in his ISU career) to replace him. Bailey Johnson is the other starter at defensive tackle and while he started eight games a year ago, he didn't exactly cover himself in glory (22 tackles, 3 TFL). He may be challenged for playing time by the awesomely-named Stephen Ruempolhamer, a Dutchman. Outside of Parker, the ISU defensive front is pretty light on experience and even the guys who have played haven't exactly torn it up so far; that should benefit an inexperienced Iowa offensive line.
Of course, the players on the defensive front look like the battle-scarred veterans compared to the fresh faces ISU will be fielding at LB. All three starters from a year ago are gone, including leading tackler and defensive lynchpin Jesse Smith. Replacing them is a motley crew of players with on-paper promise but little on-field evidence to back up that promise. Rhoads seems so excited about his options at LB that he's openly talking about playing a lot more nickel this fall, which could be manna from heaven for the Iowa running game if the Iowa offensive line can gel quickly. Regardless, AJ Klein is projected to start at outside linebacker, Matt Tau'fo'ou at middle linebacker, and Jake Knott at weakside linebacker. Jacob Lattimer is also expected to push for playing time; that is, if he can avoid getting busted for roid raging and busting up car windows.
The secondary is the one area of the ISU defense that actually is experienced; not coincidentally, it's also expected to be the best part of that defense. The secondary is led by a pair of seniors at safety; strong safety David Sims had 88 tackles and five interceptions a year ago and was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, while free safety Michael O'Connell had 43 tackles and a game-saving interception late in the Nebraska game. They're joined by two experienced hands at cornerback in juniors Ter'ran Benton and Leonard Johnson. Benton had 41 tackles a year ago and is one of ISU's better cover men, while Johnson is one of the biggest hitters on the team (a skill that got him into some trouble early in his career; he also got nailed with a costly helmet-to-helmet penalty in the 2008 Iowa game) and a fairly impressive ballhawk (four interceptions, five forced fumbles, and four fumble recoveries already in his career). Stanzi did manage to throw a career-best four touchdown passes against this secondary a year ago, but he also completed just 50% of his passes (18/34) and threw a pair of interceptions (as he is wont to do). If Iowa can't establish a running game against ISU, moving the ball and scoring points could be a bit of a challenge.
And just how "special" are their special tems? Iowa State brings back half of their specialists from 2009; placekicker Grant Mahoney is entering his third year as starter, while Daniel Kuehl, Chad Powell, and incoming freshman Kirby Van Der Kamp will be fighting it out for the punter gig. For all the digital ink we've spilled over the kicking woes at Iowa the past few seasons, Mahoney hasn't been Mr. Reliable for the Cyclones. He went 17/25 on field goals in 2008 and converted all 33 of his extra points that year, but actually regressed last year -- 13/20 on field goals and a bewildering 26/30 on extra points. There's no indication that Mahoney's job is in danger, although one would think missing four extra points in a single season and converting just 65% of his field goals would make Rhoads quick to give him the hook if he doesn't sort out his consistency issues. The one thing Mahoney does have going for him is a powerful leg -- he made 3/5 field goals over 50 yards in 2009. Kuehl, Powell, and Van Der Kamp have no experience to speak of, so punting could be an adventure in 2010. ISU also has a standout at kick returner in Leonard Johnson; he averaged 24.6 yards per return in 2009, down slightly from the 26.4 yards per return he averaged in 2008.
Alright, smartypants, what's gonna happen? Any Iowa fan who's paid attention to the Iowa State series at all for the last decade knows that stats, trends, past encounters, and even performance in the week before the ISU-Iowa game is pretty much irrelevant. Plain and simple, weird shit happens in this game. Superior Iowa teams lost to Iowa State in 2002, 2007 (the weakest Iowa team since 2000 was still better than that shit-awful ISU team), and arguably even 2005 (although the decisiveness of ISU's win certainly makes it a bit harder to debate that point; Iowa was a handful of plays away from winning 10 games that year and they played a large portion of that game without the services of Drew Tate). 9- and 10-win Iowa teams also struggled to put away inferior ISU teams in 2004 and 2008. Shit happens in this series. Over and over and over.
On paper, Iowa should once again be a hefty favorite. The game's in Kinnick, where Iowa hasn't lost to ISU since (ugh) 2002 and two of the last three wins over ISU in Kinnick have been by double-digits. Iowa has clear advantages at every single position save offensive line. Stanzi has his flaws (cough cough STANZIBALLS cough cough), but would anyone really take Arnaud over him? He's every bit as erratic in his accuracy and just as prone to turnovers, but he doesn't have the saving grace of turning into a stone-cold killer in the fourth quarter. Alexander Robinson may be better than Adam Robinson, but Iowa's overall depth with A-Rob, Wegher, and Hampton gives them a stable of very good running backs to pound away at the ISU defense. ISU has solid receivers in Jake Williams and Darius Darks, but would anyone trade them for DJK and McNutt? And while Reisner's production has been limited thus far, Iowa's track record with producing high-level tight ends is way better than Iowa State's recent history with tight ends. Even ISU's one advantage (an experienced offensive line) is mitigated by the fact that they'll be butting heads with Iowa's greatest strength: Adrian Clayborn and his merry band of terrormonsters.
In fairness, ISU may win if they go with the nut-punch method of defending.
The mismatches are even more pronounced on defense. ISU returns half (or three-quarters if you count Parker) of their starters on the defensive line... but they're still a far cry from the likes of Clayborn, Ballard, Klug, and Binns. The mismatch at the linebacker spot isn't quite so noticeable; ISU is replacing three starters and Iowa is replacing two, but Iowa's replacements are more experienced (particularly Tarpinian)... and does anyone really doubt the ability of Norm and Darrell Wilson to have some very good linebackers ready to send out there? When's the last time Iowa had bad play out of its linebackers? ISU's greatest strength on defense is meant to be their secondary, thanks to multiple returning starters and the ball-hawking abilities of Leonard Johnson and David Sims... but, again, would you really swap them for Sash, Greenwood, Prater, and Hyde/Bernstine? Those guys were three-fourths of the secondary of the sixth-best pass efficiency defense in the nation last year.
So the match-ups favor Iowa. Recent history (two straight wins, three straight wins in Iowa City) favors Iowa. Iowa has homefield advantage. Iowa won eleven games a year ago and is going to be favored to win at least 9-10 this year; Iowa State won just seven a year ago and will be lucky to find anyone willing to predict them to match that total in 2010. By most indications, this should be a second-straight lopsided win to open the season for Iowa. And that could happen (hey, if it could happen in Ames last year after the house of horrors that dump has been for Iowa over the last decade...), but actually expecting that to happen seems foolish. It's difficult to see ISU scoring many points on Iowa's defense, between recent history (that whole "no touchdowns since 2006" bit) and the lopsided match-ups that favor Iowa. But can the Iowa offense take advantage of an inexperienced ISU defense? If the offensive line shows up and Stanzi protects the ball -- yes. On the other hand, we've sat through too many painfully tense games with ISU over the last decade to expect a cakewalk. Here's guessing the offensive line struggles to cohere this early in the season and Stanzi throws a couple of costly interceptions, but leads a scoring drive in the fourth quarter to lock up a 7-10 point win.
Look on the bright side, ISU fans... at least you don't have to deal with this Bieber-lover.
So how's the rest of their season gonna play out? Building on a seven-win season, complete with a shock win over Nebraska (in Lincoln, no less) and a season-capping bowl win is always going to be tough at Iowa State; if Rhoads can pull it off with next year's schedule they should erect a statue of him outside Jack Trice (or at least make a butter sculpture of him for next year's state fair). State opens with Northern Illinois, which should be a win, although they've had their issues with MAC teams in recent years -- a pair of losses in 2007 (to Kent State and Toledo) and a narrow win in 2006. They follow that with the road trip to Iowa and a "neutral" site game with Kansas State in Kansas City; getting a split out of those two games would be a tremendous result and even that won't be easy. They close out September with a home game against UNI -- who did, you know, beat them the last time they played...
But October is the month that could really sink ISU's season. They open October with a pair of home games against 2009 bowl teams (Texas Tech and Utah), then head on the road for back-to-back road games at Oklahoma and Texas and wind up the month with a home game with Kansas. Hello, losing streak. No one really knows what to expect out of Tech in Tommy Tuberville's first year, but ISU's track record with Tech is awful: 1-7 all-time, and the losses are rarely close (average score: Tech 39, ISU 15). Tuberville's a solid coach and Dread Pirate Cap'n Leach didn't leave the cupboard all that bare, either. Utah's coming off back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins and they've had a great deal of success against BCS teams -- nine wins in the last five years. Why you'd schedule them when you're already playing Iowa and the Big 12 South powerhouses are rotating back on your schedule is something only the Inconsolable One knows. That the game is in Ames helps (most of Utah's BCS scalps were taken in Salt Lake City, although the 2008 team did memorably knock off Michigan in the Big House and Alabama in the heart of SEC country in the Sugar Bowl), but on talent alone there's unlikely to be much (if any) advantage for ISU over Utah and Kyle Whittingham is far more proven than Rhoads. Texas and Oklahoma are Texas and Oklahoma; expect nothing but pain and devastation from those games. Like Tech, Kansas should be a bit of a wildcard next fall; most of the talent that led them to so much success over the past three years is gone, along with the roly-poly dictator-cum-coach who was the architect of those teams. But Turner Gill worked semi-miracles at Buffalo, so do you really want to bet against him?
November brings more potential landmines as home games with Nebraska and Missouri are sandwiched around a road trip to Colorado. Although Nebraska has bigger fish to fry in 2010 as one of the preseason favorites to win the Big 12, here's guessing they'll save a little something extra for ISU to avenge the loss they suffered a year ago. That game was one of the all-time WTF results; ISU forced eight turnovers and still only won by two points. Odds of them forcing eight turnovers in the game again? I'm no mathemagician, but I'm guessing it's somewhere between "slim" and "no fucking way." Colorado may or may not be very good next year, but Boulder has been a miserable place for Cyclones -- they've only won there twice in the last thirty years. Missouri's won three in a row (and six of the last seven) against ISU and has a fair amount of preseason excitement surrounding them with QB Blaine Gabbert entering his second year and eight other returning starters on offense along with eight returning starters on defense. Put it this way: ISU is unlikely to be favored in more than one Big 12 game next year (Kansas) and even that might be a virtual pick'em game. In fact, they may be favored in only two games all season (UNI and NIU). For ISU to get back to the heady air of six wins and another trip to a middling bowl, they're going to need to pull off some upsets. Does Rhoads have enough teary-eyed motivational speeches to make that happen? Survey says... no.